Life Reports for Meritocrats

It’s time to perform a bit of blog necromancy, as it’s – for better or worse – been a hectic couple of weeks. Instead of spending time on weekends writing long essays for the blog, I found myself composing online college counseling classes for students from Turkmenistan, part of the work I’m doing with a fantastic NGO, the Turkmenistan Youth and Civic Values Foundation. It being the autumn, there have been plenty of fellowship and grant applications to underwrite various adventures to Russia and Central Asia to send out. And while I’ve managed to avoid becoming that worst kind of graduate student – the one who spends all day sitting in department lounges and cafés in black turtlenecks moaning about how they can’t bear to bring themselves to write anything – the fact that I have found myself spending much time doing dissertation writing has meant less time and volubility to put thoughts to paper.

On my reading list: anthropologists' take on Afghan local politics

In particular, I’ve spent much of the last few weeks putting together a first draft of an introduction to my dissertation, which focuses on Soviet development and modernization in Afghanistan from about 1960-1991. That means reading lots of historical scholarship from different fields – books from Nick Cullather’s excellent The Hungry World, a book on US development efforts that focused on agriculture and food aid to the Third World during the Cold War, to more Afghanistan-specific stuff, like Michael Barry’s short report, “Kabul’s Long Shadows,” or Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan, both of which are intended at something of an intelligent general audience rather than scholarly readers, but have also been informative and well-written. (Apropos an earlier post about scholar-adventurer types, I might only add that a former Barfield graduate student, Noah Coburn, has recently published a book, Bazaar Politics, that seems to fit nicely into this tradition – it’s an anthropology of politics and power in Afghanistan based on his extensive fieldwork in Istalif, a relatively calm market town not far from Bagram Air Base.)

Still, now that there’s some time to write – we’re still in term but classes are winding down – I thought I’d broad a different topic than obscure scholarly works. One of the many privileges of being a Rhodes Scholar is the great dinner talks that the Warden, Don Markwell, often organizes at Rhodes House. Not only are these a great way to wean myself off of my otherwise-grim diet of pasta, Corpus Hall food, and the “unlimited supply of biscuits” that Corpus advertises so proudly in its admissions brochures; they’re also a great way to hear what’s on the mind of speakers like Anne-Marie Slaughter, F.W. de Klerk, or Gary Roughead. There’s the usual pomp in the lecture that’s familiar from big-name lectures at Princeton, but what I find rewarding about the format is to talk informally with the speaker over dinner – and in doing so, often finding a vulnerable, insightful person with lessons to offer, as opposed to the polished über-famous lecture circuit face you sense sometimes at these sorts of events.

Nader Mousavizadeh, the CEO of Oxford Analytica and a recent speaker at Rhodes House

The most recent guest to one of these events was Nader Mousavizadeh, a former Rhodes Scholar and the CEO of Oxford Analytica, a strategy consulting firm located not two minutes away from Corpus Christi College, in the middle of Oxford. Mousavizadeh’s talk was super-ambitious and covered what he sees as some of the major global trends in the next 30 years, and how that might affect governments, business, and citizens; and his CV is enough to make a seasoned meritocrat blush. After going to Harvard for undergraduate and Christ Church for an M.Phil in International Relations, he spent several years in journalism for The New Republic, working under Leon Wieseltier, before – based on his experience in Bosnia-Herzegovina – becoming the chief assistant to Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General from 1997-2006. Since then, he’s worked at Goldman Sachs, and founded his own consulting firm before joining Oxford Analytica as the CEO.

Still, what stuck with me about this event was less how ultra-analytic Mousavizadeh’s talk was, or how diverse his experiences were, than some of the themes which dinner conversation raised. Throughout, Mousavizadeh seemed interested in what people of our generation were worried about, what we talked about. What kind of jobs did we think were cool? How worried were we about the economic climate? How did people think about the relative prestige of hedge funds or investment banks, as opposed to medical school, law school, or doctoral programs? What was people’s tolerance of risk like?

I’m no stranger to reflecting and writing on these themes, and it was an especially auspicious time to have a conversation with Mousavizadeh – who graduated from Harvard in the early 1990s and is hence not utterly removed from the world of ambitious American Ivy League graduates that constitutes a fair proportion of Rhodes Scholars – given that David Brooks, the columnist for the New York Times, was also in the middle of a project he called the Life Reports. Brooks, who has recently written on the roots of happiness and success from the perspective of neuroscience, was interested in seeing how individual Americans’ life stories bore either his own intuitions or the science out. He asked readers, preferably those older than 50 or so, to submit their life stories and reflections on their success, or satisfaction, with their family life, their journeys in faith, or their careers.

David Brooks, prognosticator of American happiness since 2011

“Many people lament the fact that they had to make the most important decisions in their 20s, at the age when they were least qualified to make them,” writes Brooks. While Brooks aimed to survey people in the autumn of life, love, career, and faith, the “Life Reports” make for fascinating reading, for people in their twenties. Reports like the Harvard Study of Adult Development might provide some perspective on how Harvard men found (or did not find) success or happiness throughout the 20th century, but our generation today faces different challenges: the decline of American manufacturing employment, the rise of women in the workplace, the two-income family, much greater international opportunities, etc. We can only learn from the generations that preceded us, of course, and the experience of Boomers is already quite different from the world that young Americans under 35 might face. But Brooks’ informal qualitative survey allows would-be Millennial professionals to learn from the experiences of their elders, and hopefully reflect on what attitudes towards life and career might lead towards more or less satisfaction.

For the sake of concision, I’ve tried to boil down some of the reflections I’ve reached, both on my own and in conversation with Mousavizadeh on some of the lessons Millennials might extract by comparing their lot to those presented in the Life Reports.

1. Economic Insecurity and Life Chapters

One of my professors at Princeton once told me about an informal survey he conducted in a departmental meeting that surprised me. He had been reading about how differently people organize their memory of their lives in retrospect, and during a coffee break of an interminable faculty meeting, he asked his departmental colleagues, whether, more or less, they thought of their life in terms of chapters or episodes that were clearly delineated from one another, or in terms of a more-or-less unbroken narrative where, in spite of changes, the core themes remained constant. He always said that he identified more with the latter category, but he was surprised to see that the styles of memory organization roughly broke down half-and-half among his colleague. What’s more, there appeared to be no correlation between how people organized their memories of their life and their own reported self-satisfaction.

Brooks has also remarked on this distinction between chapters and non-chapters. He notes, however, that the people who (however artificially) divided their lives into chapters were more satisfied than those who didn’t. He writes: “They wrote things like: There were six crucial decisions in my life. Then they organized their lives around those pivot points. By seeing time as something divisible into chunks, they could more easily stop and self-appraise. They had more control over their fate.” In contrast, he cites the tragic story of Neil, a man whose whole life was dominated by an anti-authoritarian impulse against his authoritarian father. Neil was viciously peripatetic and determined to disprove his father’s judgment that his son would never amount to anything, but after decades of moving around, and committing loosely to relationships and professionals, Neil (in his own judgment) was both a professional and personal failure. Whether through work, family, or faith, he lacked an anchor, and the urge to run away from something – probably his father’s influence – ultimately prevented him from becoming the more impressive man than his father that he had wanted to be. Perhaps, Brooks implies, the healthier thing to do would have been to find some way to reach closure with the father, identify and commit to passions, and devote – however artificially – periods of one’s life to improving as a father, a professional, a husband, a man of faith, etc.

I have a table of contents for mine ... what about you?

What’s the relevance to Millennials? One common refrain I heard in conversations and over dinner with other Scholars was the extent to which our generation feels the need to professionalize itself early, and the extent to which we prime ourselves for a “breakout” (i.e. professional blossoming) around our mid-30s, as opposed to more exploration or serendipity. We saw our classmates enter the élite institutions priming themselves for a career in investment banking or consulting already at age 19. They constructed not only a life plan but also a marketable personality designed to set themselves up for a nice trajectory of Ivy League School to bank to élite business school to private equity to … supposedly, satisfaction by their late 30s. Other times, people promised to themselves that they would allow themselves a space for creativity and exploration, but only after a few years in consulting and banking. This, Mousavizadeh commented, was also a refrain that was common in Cambridge in the early 1990s, but many of the Harvard students who repeated that refrain then are still – now at the senior levels, of course – at the McKinseys, Bains, and BCGs of the world. On top of these decision-making approaches, our generation simply has more student debt than previous generations did.

The point is twofold. Either, it seems, people over-impose chapters and logic on their lives. They insist that professional life has to follow a certain logic of unfolding prestige and élite institutions, and they tailor their ambitions and even personalities to fit the standardized career arc from ages 20 to 35. Or they allow the opportunities associated with élite institutions to impose chapters – often unwanted or not needed – on their own lives. A would-be novelist or journalist – career tracks which might be difficult to maintain in one’s 30s with serious relationships or a family – decides to give two years of their 20s to gain more marketable skills, to get a taste of the professional world, to build up some savings for their real passion. But they find that it’s harder to change the narrative of your life after you’ve already penned several chapters into their 20s. What effect these choices have on people’s long-term satisfaction remains uncertain; after several conversations with journalists in the last week, I would be remiss in suggesting that journalists or artists or dancers have the happiest lives. But I do suspect that these two schizoid methods of imposing chapters onto one’s life could be a cause of anxiety.

2. An Appetite for Risk

There were no surprises in conversation with Mousavizadeh, or in reading Brooks, on this one. “Lean toward risk,” writes Brooks. “It’s trite, but apparently true. Many more seniors regret the risks they didn’t take than regret the ones they did.”

Mousavizadeh, however, seemed as shocked and perplexed as others have been when I spoke with him about the common destinations of many Rhodes Scholars after Oxford: consulting, law schools, med school. At a Rhodes alumni gathering last summer in Oxford, one country secretary for the Scholarship openly told Scholars that he thought that too many of them were deferring actually doing something in the world, as opposed to making hedging moves towards some vague goal of “impact” in the long run. While the speaker himself had gone to a top American law school prior to embarking on a career in the corporate sector and state-level government, he admonished those in the audience for having, somewhere, somehow, developed the idea that it’s impossible to do any good in the world without (at a minimum) a doctorate, a law degree, and maybe 4-5 years in consulting on top of that. Or, as Mousavizadeh put it, “you don’t need a fancy scholarship to get a job at McKinsey.” What if people with real privilege actually tried to leverage that prestige into something where they thought it really mattered?

The new high school diploma?

What could be done to encourage more risk-taking, or to encourage Millennials to rethink what constitutes risk, remains less clear. One theme that’s emerged to me as I ask older people with similar interests to mine for advice, is that a lot of things which seem awesome, fun, and the thing to do in one’s twenties, increasingly seem stupid, foolish, or dangerous in one’s thirties. Ditching everything to be a reporter in Afghanistan, Myanmar, or Libya, might seem quite groovy – and could propel one quite quickly and far – in one’s twenties, but good luck selling that to a husband – or to a child.  One trends which I see as quite positive has been the so-called scamblog movement, which has highlighted the explosion in the cost of legal education as well as the declining career prospects for those with JDs, to say nothing of the opportunity cost of three years in school during one’s mid-to-late 20s. True, the number of people who view law school as a somehow “risk-averse” thing to do, even though it would be less expensive and probably better for one’s career to be the reporter in Iraq or Afghanistan, remains quite high. But more research into, and more public advocacy on, the true long-term tradeoffs and debt often involved in American higher education could change people’s perception of risk.

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”, Steve Jobs is reported to have said to Pepsi executive John Sculley in convincing him to leave the soda giant to become Apple’s CEO. Given the reception of the tech mogul’s recent death, we sure like to idolize risk-taking and creative leadership, but I often wonder why so many highly accomplished people prefer to do consulting projects for, seemingly, the rest of their twenties rather than following the (grounded) idealism that led them to so many opportunities.

3 … But It’s A Different World

At the same time, I think that Mousavizadeh was surprised to hear undertones of anger and frustration from myself and some of the other people at the dinner. When he asked what people were thinking about in our generation, or what worried us, I noted the horror that other Princeton graduates and I felt that the bottom had fallen out in terms of opportunity in America. Throughout our college experience, from 2004-2008, we were repeatedly told that we had the world as our oyster, and in fora at Oxford and Rhodes House, we’re also repeatedly told that we live in exciting times, that we have a world of opportunities before us, and so on.

Yet in spite of these real opportunities and privileges for which we are grateful, friends and I often feel a sense of frustration or outrage at the fairness of the social contract given even to those who, supposedly, were at the top of the meritocratic totem pole. Among Oxford classmates who went to institutions like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Northwestern, and Chicago, almost no one lacks for numerous anecdotes – which are not data – of friends who failed to secure employment or entry to graduate programs immediately after graduation and have effectively been languishing at home in suburban America for multiple years. It is not my aim to present graduates of élite American universities as a discriminated or underprivileged class, but the sheer volume of stories of people apparently stuck in permanent unemployment without real options ahead of them – at age 25! – has convinced me that stories of unemployment for more than a few months as a permanent disqualifier for … employment is hardly limited to lower-skilled sectors of the American labor force.

Dr. Clinton?

Adding to the sense of frustration and the sense that even expensive élite education confers little to no social insurance is the grating sense of irrelevance that celebrity culture confers even unto the most privileged, most educated, and hardest-working young Americans. Many of the other members of my Oxford cohort have, fortunately, reached sufficient exit velocity that they’re not really worrying about the fate highlighted above of spending their entire twenties in their parents’ basement. They are working on PhDs, going to medical school, working in high finance, or have greater political ambitions than they may openly acknowledge. The doors of the élite pathways – banks, graduate schools, clerkships – are open to them. But as the sense that opportunity, even for those who have worked hard, is narrowing, the grating feeling of what Daniel Boorstin called “non-events” of celebrities’ academic or intellectual accomplishments grows.

For example, while Chelsea Clinton was surely deprived the experience of a normal childhood by her father’s Presidency, it is tiresome when media outlets report of how she – in theory at least – is simultaneously pursuing a PhD in International Relations at the same time that she is working as a special correspondent for NBC News. Similarly, friends in English doctoral programs are more than a little tired of the numerous reports on how actor James Franco is simultaneously pursuing a PhD in English at Yale (the #1 English PhD program nationally) … and taking classes at RISD … and teaching courses at NYU … and enrolling in a second doctoral program (this one in creative writing) at the University of Houston. The accomplishments of hard-working, less beautiful, less flashy graduate students, meanwhile, mysteriously remains a non-story.

Almost as awesome as my life as a graduate student

As the author and commentator Walter Russell Mead notes, “I know of no reason why the younger Ms Clinton should not have this or any job.” The same might be said of Franco, who is known for his energy and has distinguished himself as a young actor. “But,” Mead continues, “the increasing sense that this country is run by a hereditary celebrity class is one of the most corrosive and dangerous forces eating away at our common life. […] Meritocracy is not the same as nepotism and the mix of media, money, celebrity and politics, while to some degree inevitable, is also toxic and should be taken in the smallest possible dose.” Worrying is the perpetual sense of, if not full, then partial second-class citizenship that such a fusion of celebrity culture and privilege seems to imply. You can work hard, but if you don’t have the necessary connections, or weren’t born to the right parents, you may never be able to reach the top.

What’s the point for the longer-term, and how does this relate to the Life Reports? Fortunately, both Brooks’ Life Reports as well as the Harvard Study of Adult Development suggested that it was extended, durable personal relationships – whether friendships, romances, or marriages – not professional accomplishment that was most closely connected with personal satisfaction and enduring happiness over a lifetime. The fact, in other words, that a celebrity-media-financial class may be entitled to the top positions in the American hierarchy, might be bad for your résumé, in other words, but it probably won’t make you unhappy.

But  I also wonder whether the fact that both the Harvard Study as well as the Life Reports followed American lives that took place in large part prior to the 1970s and 1980s could be leading us to miss important trends. Those Americans grew up and made their professional lives in large part before what Jacob Hacker calls “the great risk shift,” before trends in the cost of education, healthcare, and childcare that made middle-class lifestyles cripplingly expensive, and in large part before the explosion in 24-hour news cycles and celebrity culture that have intensified since the 1980s. The strategies highlighted above of longer chapters to one’s life, and risk aversion, might just be ways to deal with this new reality. I worry, however, that the life reports they produce might be less inspiring than some of what has graced Brooks’ blog of late.

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